Chapter 1: The Economy and Infrastructure

Believe it or not, this is a very important and fundamental part of worldbuilding. What you're doing, at the most basic level, is figuring out how food gets from its most natural state into people's stomachs. This can be a highly simple process that can be undertaken by one person, or it can be a very complex process with very specific division of labour. The simpler your system of food processing, the simpler your society is likely to be.

The Process of Eating

1. Food in its natural state

This in itself will determine a number of possibilities for your society. People can get their food in the following way:

Hunter-gathering. People will have to devote a lot of time to hunting game, catching fish, and foraging for vegetation. This system can't support large groups, so unless people are trading for food with something or doing agriculture on the side, communities probably won't be more than sixty people (including the very old and the very young) tops.

Agriculture. This is a very wide umbrella with a much larger range of possibilities, anthropologically speaking, than hunter-gathering, because there are so many different types of agriculture. Essentially, it means overseeing the production of food in its natural state from sowing to harvest (for plants) and insemination to butchering (for animals). There are many different types of agriculture, but a society can mix and match them.

Types of Agriculture:

Pastoralism. This is a fancy word for 'taking care of livestock'. This can be done in a contained area in a similar way to English sheep farmers, or it can be nomadic and moving from place to place like a Bedouin or Mongol family. Note that sedentary pastoralism will mean that people are probably going to have some concept of owning land, and that nomadic pastoralism can only take place when the topography is wide and relatively flat with little dense vegetation, and that population has to be very sparse. They're a lot less likely to have the concept of 'owning land' as well. Note also that in pastoral cultures, you're likely to get livestock raids (think Cowboy Rustlers and Irish cattle thieves), as well as drives to market. These are likely to be a big part of life and embedded within artistic culture.

Shifting Cultivation. This is where you move onto a piece of land, farm it for a few years (with crops) until the soil is exhausted, then move on and start again. Typically plots of land will be left alone long enough to recover completely. This gets practised in rainforests quite a lot, and some Native American nations practised it too. In these sorts of societies, people are very unlikely to have a concept of 'owning land' in a permanent sense. Also, for this to work, population density needs to be relatively scarce (if it's not, conflict over resources will soon arise), and populations need to be equipped for moving around every few years. So it's unlikely that people would be carrying around breakables like glass and pottery unless there was a big trade-off.

Subsistence Agriculture. This is when people farm to feed themselves and their families. Typically this is small-scale, and no more than medium-scale, BUT that can be varied. People are likely to be very jealous of their farmland, especially if they are sedentary, but all food and labour is likely to be democratically owned. Expect this to be a family, community, or clan affair, and note that cereals will probably be grown alongside fruit and herbs, which in turn will probably be next to the livestock like pigs, chickens, and cows. In short, this family (or village) probably keeps everything in common and won't like strangers very much. Overpopulation will cause problems, as will crop failures, livestock diseases, and famine.

Commerce Agriculture. This is when people produce food and cash crops (like cotton in the American South) to sell on a market (this can be in the literal sense or the modern economic sense). Note that this can co-exist with subsistence, pastoral, or shifting agriculture: people are going to sell their leftovers for cash or goods before they spoil. However, commerce agriculture is going to require some agricultural innovation, because each worker is going to have to produce a lot more food than he can consume - and because the owner is selling at a profit, he'll want to squeeze as much produce out of a worker as possible. Commerce agriculture, when it's purpose-done commerce agriculture, is very susceptible to worker exploitation: expect agricultural slaves and wage-labourers dependent on a master or an overseer. This type of society is a lot more likely to be stratified and exploitative, but also very likely to be scientifically enquiring and innovative in the hope of increasing yields. Note: any civilisation with towns, cities, professional armies and steep inequalities of wealth is going to have to have commerce agriculture of some kind, otherwise they'd never get fed.

2. Food processing, step 1

So, your food is gathered, harvested, killed, whatever. What next?

If you and your immediate family is eating it very soon, then you have one of two options: you can prepare it for the cooking pot yourself, or you can outsource that job. If you outsource, though, you'll have to force the other person to do it (slavery), or compensate them somehow. If this is the case, skip all future steps except the next one in bold.

If you and your immediate family are planning on eating this stuff, say, two months down the line, you are going to have to find a way to preserve it. This can be anywhere on the technological spectrum (pickles to fridges), but bear in mind, how are you going to get your hands on the preservatives? Do you grow them alongside your food, or do you buy them? If this is the case, skip the rest of the process.

If you're planning to sell your produce, you need to preserve it so that it doesn't go rotten before somebody buys it.

3. Getting your produce to market

In a very simple society, you drive your cattle to the fair, or bring your pickles, grain, and fruit to the same place on Market Day. Do you carry the stuff on your back? On the back of a horse? (You'll need a farrier around if this is a regular occurrence). On a cart? (In which case, you'll need a farrier and a wainwright). On a jeep or a truck or lorry? (You'll need a mechanic). On some kind of magical transport? (How might that work?). If this is the case, skip Step 4

In a more complex society, where logistics chains are longer, you might load it onto a train to be sold - in which case, do you sell it to the person who puts it onto the train, or does the train take you to a customs house, city/regional/national market to be sold on further, warehouse, place you contracted to sell your stuff to, whatever? If it's a train (or a ship or a barge or a plane or a maglev line as the case may be), there will have to be service staff to a) do the humping and b) make sure the transport is running properly. And these guys are either going to be conscripted or paid - so how might the logistics of that work?

4. Food Processing, step 2

So now the foodstuffs have been distributed.

Are they in people's homes yet, in which case, someone needs to cook the stuff into a proper meal?

Or are they in a warehouse or a factory, in which case they need to be bought by a shop to sell on at a profit? If they are, how is the contracting done? What kind of people work in a shop?

5. Food Processing, step 3

So you and your family have just bought food from . . . somewhere. Someone needs to take it out of its proverbial shopping basket and turn it into a delicious and edible meal. Does a beloved family member do it? Or does the hired help do it? Or a slave of some kind (who will still need to be fed, since dead slaves can't work).

So I think from all that, you can probably see how the process of how food gets from its natural state into people's bellies can shape:

Property values

Social structure

Infrastructure and logistics

Jobs and services

Population size

Community size


Technology level

That's all for today, folks. Next up: Services and the Production of goods